"Quiet, beauty, intelligent, sculptural and emotional" are the five words that gently tumble from the mouths of Levi Palmer and Matthew Harding when asked to describe their label, palmer//harding. One or two might be uttered in Palmer's soft Texas twang with the other three in Harding's London tone but they are heard as one. From their home and studio base in Rickmansworth the design duo work tirelessly on their quest for intricate perfection to that oft neglected and taken for granted garment, the shirt. Since its accomplished debut in September 2011, palmer//harding have created men's and women's collections that encompass the combined aesthetic, passion, skill and international experience of the design duo. It is a label that revels and excels in the realms of duality. Simple yet complex. Restrained yet free. Traditional yet innovative. It is all to easy to encounter semantic opposition when discussing this talented couple. The real beauty and magic is the pleasing balance they strike and how they play to each others strengths.
The pair met at Central Saint Martins in 2007. Palmer, Texas born, studied womenswear and pattern-cutting at El Centro College in Dallas before moving to London in 2005 to study menswear at Central Saint Martins. Harding received a bursary from Giorgio Armani after completing his BA, enabling him to continue his education at Central Saint Martins on the MA course, graduating in 2010 under the tutelage of Professor Louise Wilson O.B.E. Both finished with acclaimed collections but as self titled 'recession graduates' approached their futures with a healthy dose of realism and caution.
"We both wanted to work in the industry before doing anything on our own. We saw fellow graduates running out of CSM, setting up labels, doing these shows. Now, some might have received amazing support from the likes of Fashion East or MAN but it can be a poisoned apple for some labels, it might not necessarily work as to help create a business with longevity," explains Harding. "With the added pressure of the recession, we just didn't feel like this was right for us. Instead we got some freelance gigs here and there, and there should have been some amazing opportunities out there because we both graduated top of our class but no one was really hiring. During this period we survived by freelancing but it did strip us off any ego that we might have had at that time. It grounded us and we just thought, right, if we are going to do something on our own, lets do it with a sensible hat on. We assessed how we could do a label." Matthew Harding
"We've learned from looking at other labels, looking at their successes and failures. We've applied the same critical eye to all of our work. We often criticised our early collections once they'd been finished. Even last season, where we saw three hundred and fifty per cent growth, we still looked at what we did wrong. We are always striving to improve.
During the design process we tend to work differently. I'm a trained pattern cutter, I studied for three years in Dallas and I did that before I had the creative education. So ever since then, when I design I put the patterns in my head whilst I'm designing. On the other hand, Matthew designs visually and some might not physically work but because they are pushing it, he'll be happening upon true innovation. It's then our job to work to bring it together and to realisation." Levi Palmer
It is this design dynamic and continuous questioning by each designer that pushes palmer//harding forward and elevates the humble shirt in the process. By focusing on a single garment the designs can be seen in a pure form. Without distraction. Throughout each collection the boys showcase and celebrate the progressive beauty and craft of the garments. palmer//harding is a document of sartorial evolution and with SS13 they take another assured step forward.
"This being our third season, we were more in the flow of it all and we enjoyed having a longer period to develop our quality and fit," Harding begins before excitedly continuing at a quicker pace. "For example we spent five days perfecting the size and shape of our collar and even when we returned back from our appointments in Paris we spent a further day perfecting them. We've now trained our eye and even though we are extremely proud of our work for the first two seasons we can't help but see the faults, we've become snobs as we continuously strive to improve." Most consumers wouldn't notice subtle changes but both Palmer and Harding delight in the details of construction.
"We're geeks when it comes to shirts and construction. For example, one of the signs of a real quality shirt is the stitch length and this season we're working to an eighteen to twenty two stitches per inch whereas past seasons were around sixteen, it might not sound a lot but to us it is a huge difference. We are in our own little bubble up here, concerned with quality and construction. When we started we wanted to be shirt focused, so from the very first season we've been seen to declare ourselves as specialists but we were still learning. Now, after three seasons we feel as though we are specialists, we have that knowledge but of course, there's still so much to learn." Matthew Harding
The relationship between their menswear and womenswear is, understandably a close one. The womenswear might have received more fanfare in recent seasons but that doesn't make their men's offering any less important to them as designers or to the business plan.
"The shirt itself is grounded in menswear, there's so much tailoring heritage in there. Every facet of the shirt has slowly evolved from sleeve heads to gauntlets and we want to be part of that. With our menswear especially it is all about finding the right balance between something that feels new and innovative whilst feeling familiar and able to slot in to a wardrobe and be enjoyed for some time. It all begins with the same research and works together. We might start off with some specific menswear related research but it often influences the womenswear. It's a process together. The tough challenge that we've set ourselves is that our collections are quieter than most and it's about making the wearer building on their own style." Matthew Harding
"Our walls are a constant mish mash of everything that we've picked up, from library research to exhibitions and anything else that we might encounter. We go the Central Saint Martins a lot because they have such a great collection of references but with all of the blogs and online reference sites, you can follow this amazing trail and have access to a much wider array of art and thought. I am a fact whore, if I encounter something that I like but am unfamiliar with, I'll research it." Levi Palmer
"There's never a theme or a specific reference. We just amass a mix of images and research and each collection evolves from it. We research both together and separately before coming together to edit, we have to have an emotional connection but it becomes a story that we don't really know. It's there, we begin designing and our the collection absorbs it." Matthew Harding
For SS13, palmer//harding offer ten shirts for men. "We wanted to keep the definition of what our menswear is. We're not interested in saying something in one hundred looks when it can be said in just ten." There's a succinct balance in the edit but each piece flows to the next and continues the thread of the the label's narrative. Each is quietly drunk on detail. From the recently registered spiral pleat to structured pleats and plays with transparencies, the duo experiment with the blank canvas of cotton (sponsored by Cotton USA). Now, enough talk. Lets explore the quiet beauty of the collection.
palmer//harding's SS13 look book alongside our own detail shots.
Three seasons in and despite gracing the pages of international publications, including features in American and British Vogue and picking up prestigious stocking internationally including Ikram, Joyce, and Louis Boston, they remain cautious and realistic. The pair are in no rush. Everything has to be considered. Their approach to menswear is a fine example. Menswear is an important part of the brand and has been from the very beginning but time is the greatest constraint and is what has prevented them from taking part in London Collections: Men and the typical sales season. "We just can't split between the two at the moment," explains Palmer somewhat ruefully. "We try our best not to rely on fabrics to speak, we feel that the pattern cutting, finishing and small details should be what speaks and because of that it requires a lot of development." Instead of rushing, the pair are laying the foundations of their menswear offering whilst their womenswear ticks along. "I think a collection of ten strong menswear shirts works but is it something that many buyers will understand? I think that takes time so by generating press over the course of three or four seasons of menswear, when we do push the sales we should be in a better position." Once again the pair speak sense. The good news is that Dover Street Market have picked it up. More will follow with time, when palmer//harding themselves feel that they are ready.